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Series

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Series Beginnings

A few weeks back, I reached out to see who had questions. Rachel had a great one:

Back when I read the Baby Sitters Club as a kid, I would always skim over the whole “introduction” to the club and group, which appeared in each book. I am currently working on a chapter series and wonder if each book needs the “introduction” to the story, or if they are a bit unnecessary these days?

This astute reader is totally right. A catch-up introduction is no longer the norm in a series. Whew! No need to write a dry and skip-able synopsis for your manuscripts. (Though, unfortunately, you’ll still have to craft one for when you submit.) However, this opens up a bigger question: “So how do you begin a series without boring readers who are familiar with your premise?”

For a more modern feel, you want to include that information in your opening few chapters. However, you don’t want to bog the opening down with tons of facts right off the bat. So what I would do is pick several key facts about your main characters and their relationships, about the world in which your story is set (even if it’s in our modern non-fantasy world, each “world” has its own rules and climate, like a high school cafeteria from a popular person’s POV vs. an underdog’s, those “worlds” look very different), and anything else from previous installments that’s crucial to know.

By providing this context but weaving it into the first few chapters of the story, you will be welcoming your existing readers back into the story while simultaneously giving new readers a chance to catch up. All without info-dumping. The important thing to remember is to keep everything brief and relevant. The story should start in action that continues the plot you’ve already been telling. This way, it’s easy to keep pacing quick while providing some relevant context.

For example, if your characters are at war at the end of Book 1, open Book 2 with them gearing up for an important battle. From the action, new readers will be able to gather that they’re at war and something important is coming up. During that scene, you will want to drop hints concerning why they’re at war, who they’re fighting against, what the stakes are, etc. Since characters will be interacting as they prepare, you can start introducing a sense of their relationships, values, personal objectives, and motivations. Sure, you have all this juicy backstory about the king and some palace intrigue, but leave it for later. Open with big action that carries the pacing and buys you a few moments to balance it with information.

I have recently been reading some craft books and if you want to delve more deeply into the topic of starting your novel, whether it’s a stand-alone manuscript or part of a planned series, I’d recommend The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

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I’m seeing some submissions lately that put the cart before the horse in terms of what they’re pitching. Several writers write and say, “I have such and such project that would make a great app. And then this other project just screams to be developed into a touring ice show. Finally, I can just see the face of my third protagonist plastered on everything from stuffed animals to t-shirts.”

There’s a lot to be said about focusing on your project as a book idea and letting all these other things come later. Since I’m seeing more and more of this type of pitch, I want to remind everyone that it’s okay to simply have a book that’s going to make a good book. In fact, that’s the point of trying to query a book.

And let me just add to what I’ve already said by emphasizing that nowhere is it stated that every single book idea will get every single ancillary product/right/option in the world. When you look at the sheer number of things that get published every year, a much smaller percentage goes on to merchandising opportunities, movie options, video game licenses, and all of the other things that some aspiring writers dream about.

I think that all this talk of apps really got people’s imaginations going. “It’s going to be a book AND an app, guaranteed,” one thinks, “because everyone is talking about apps!”Then that “and…” mentality spread to theme parks and licensed coffee tumblers and international editions. I get it. But it’s very important to remember that most books don’t get apps, or foreign sales, or entertainment deals.

That’s the danger of REQUIRING anything on your publishing journey, whether it’s a trilogy of books in order to tell your story or a read-and-play app that plugs into your premise. The more you require, especially as a debut, the fewer incentives you’re giving a house to take a chance on you. Your “and” turns into their “but,” ie: “We really see the potential for this book idea BUT they’re pushing us for a trilogy and I’m just not sure that we can make that kind of investment.”

Require less, open your mind to telling your story in the simplest way possible, and celebrate the ancillary successes that roll in. It’s often a fun and happy surprise when Hollywood calls or a comic book edition is picked up, and it can pay a month or more of your rent. Yay! But it’s not guaranteed and it’s also not the end all and be all. Keep it in perspective. That’s the best way to establish market savvy and tone down your expectations, thereby becoming a writer that many more people would be willing and excited to work with.

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This is the question I got the other week from Elan:

How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.

Good question, Elan. This is something a lot of writers should be researching before they query because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.

Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.

Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really in the writing gig for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.

This isn’t fun to hear for all the fantasy and paranormal and sci-fi writers who have planned seven-book story arcs. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”

It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.

So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:

  • Book One: set-up and background and initiation
  • Book Two: exploration and character development
  • Book Three: showdown!

But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.

I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.

So when you query, do let me know if you’ve got a series in mind. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”

* And, you know, have this be true.

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